Putting the Management Back in Change Step 6: Short Term Wins

In my series, “Putting the Management Back in Change,” I’ve been looking at what it really takes for companies to successfully institutionalize sustainability and truly be “green firms.” Stage 6 sidebarI use Harvard business guru John Kotter’s 8 step model for organizational change as a framework but I use it to focus on sustainability initiatives. Previously, I introduced the topic and discussed the need to create a sense of urgency, build guiding coalitions to create buy-in and grow momentum, develop a strong vision of where the company is headed, communicate the vision effectively and address barriers that could derail momentum. In this installment, I’ll discuss the need for short-term successes to pump up energy and provide momentum and the 7 reasons why it’s important.

Real transformations take time…and they change and adapt along the way. If you don’t have short-term wins, you lose momentum and buy-in and you miss the opportunity to identify key barriers to success and address them early on.

On the other hand, the caution for short-term wins is declaring victory too soon or thinking that the effort to understand change is over; resting on your laurels. In this article, I’ll focus on the role of short-term wins, their characteristics and things to consider when planning for them.

The purpose of short term wins

There are many reasons to plan for and execute short-term wins and not just slog on towards a long-term goal. Kotter identifies 7 different reasons:

Prove that it’s worth it: Short-term wins give people a chance to experience directly and see evidence that the sacrifices and changes are worth it and that success is possible, which is more effective than verbal why important sidebararguments. Wins help justify any (short-term) costs that may be involved. They also create the credibility needed to change existing systems, structures or policies that run counter to the long-term vision.

Reward efforts: Change agents deserve a pat on the back. After a lot of hard work, positive feedback builds morale and motivation. Constant tension is always bad for morale. A chance to sit back, celebrate success and relax before the next hill is important for the long-term marathon. These efforts can also become a mechanism for hiring, promoting and developing employees who can effectively manifest and contribute to achieving the vision.

Fine-tune vision and strategies: Short-term wins give the guiding coalition feedback about the viability of their vision and in particular, their strategies. They can test strategies against reality early on; otherwise barriers can become visible too late in the game and be harder to adjust for, or completely derail the effort. For example, if an architecture firm wants to increase its early-stage energy analysis within 6 months, and decides to use in-house software, but then finds that the engineering consultants don’t buy-in to the results, that may be the wrong strategy – or there may be a need to do some proactive stakeholder engagement to get the engineers on board or refine the in-house approach to align with theirs.

Undermine cynics and “self-serving resisters”: Wins and obvious improvements in performance make it much harder for people to block change. Not everyone responds to logic and data, and the more resisters you have, the more important short-term wins are. For example, many designers are uncomfortable at first with the process changes that integrative design brings. Once they start to see the paradigm shifts it creates and the ability to include new strategies, achieve higher performance and control cost, many see the value.

Keep Execs engaged: Early wins provide bosses at all levels evidence that the transformation is on track and has value that is measurable. Short-term wins focused on cost reduction, improved performance, or morale/retention will necessitate engagement of senior people, which means that executives will want to be involved and the broad coalition is reinforced.

Reinvigorate the effort: The adrenaline of success can reinvigorate the process with new ideas and new projects, and attract new people to participate and get involved. The experience can also lead to or inspire innovation. Once people experience a win, they are encouraged to question what else they can achieve and look for the next challenge.

Build momentum: Most importantly, short-term wins build necessary momentum and convert neutral employees into supporters and passive supporters into active champions. Momentum is a good missionary, converting more and more people to the cause. It is important to grow the ownership of the initiative so that it doesn’t rely on one strong leader. Frequently, efforts deteriorate if a strong leader goes away.


According to Kotter, a good short-term win has at least these three characteristics:

  1. It’s visible (and tangible); large numbers of people can see for themselves whether the result is real or just hype.
  2. It’s unambiguous; there can be little argument over the call.
  3. It’s clearly related to the change effort; people can understand how the longer-term effort can be achieved.

When modifications to a process promise to improve internal efficiency, reduce time spent on analysis and eliminate “reinventing the wheel” on every project – and those efficiencies are tracked and measured, showing marked improvement within 12 months – that’s a win (especially if the redundancies and lost time weren’t previously tracked or acknowledged). When a few pilot projects are able to achieve a higher LEED rating, or the same rating for less cost and building performance is improved, that’s a win. When lighting power density on 3 projects within 6 months is reduced and the collaborative design process that led to the efficiency is clearly responsible, people can understand why it’s important to institutionalize a new approach.  When a contractor’s improved construction waste diversion rates and pilot materials tracking system (for LEED) helps them win new work, that’s a win to build on.

Details to keep in mind

Kotter’s three characteristics may seem simple, but the details are inportant. There are some things to keep in mind as you plan short-term wins.

First, you need to make sure that the short-term wins are designed to have a clear and relevant time frame: within 6 months in a small organization and between 9-18 months in a very large organization. Second, they must be “wins” that people get excited about and third, they need to target impacts that matter to leadership as well as staff.  Planned wins should have corresponding measurable performance indicators that are meaningful, and can be tracked and evaluated. In thinking about what metrics to track, consider what metrics people care about.

Short-term wins typically aim at achieving one or more of 3 categories: cost reduction, process improvement (and/or customer satisfaction, these are often connected), and morale (including attraction/retention). For a property management company, instituting green cleaning education for maintenance staff could cover all 3 of these bases. An engineering firm trying to improve its internal efficiency and staff utilization rates for energy analysis and simulation might want to track the number of hours spent on different scales or types of projects and gauge how much time is wasted “recreating the wheel”.

As part of your overall change strategy, it will be important to plan several short-term wins, both to test different paths and to engage different stakeholder groups in the effort.  Lastly, in planning these few short-term wins, it is important that one person oversees (or at least keeps tabs on) all the different efforts and reports back approximately every 2 months. This way, leadership maintains interest and the feedback loop is short enough to make any mid-course corrections.

On a different note, throughout these blog posts there is a recurring theme of engaging leadership. It’s important to make a distinction between leaders and managers here. Both play important but different roles in change efforts. Leaders set the vision and champion the big picture, but managers systematically translate objectives into targets and make plans and budgets to achieve objectives. They organize and orchestrate implementation and control the process to keep things on track. The transformation desired through the change effort depends on a strong vision but also on good management and engaging managers to ensure that tactical decisions are considered and implemented carefully. Both leaders and managers can lose sight of the importance of focusing on short term wins, either because of being detached or overwhelmed, or because they don’t perceive the urgency for the change.

A good example is the 2030 challenge or AIA’s 2030 Commitment. Many firms have pledged to reduce the carbon footprint of their projects and their operations in line with Architecture 2030’s targets. This is a long term goal that will take multiple years to achieve. Many highly motivated firms, who have been through 2 or 3 reporting cycles, hit walls, get stuck on plateaus or encounter challenges along the way. Those who have the greatest success were able to stage their efforts over time with shorter term goals. For architecture firms, one area of focus has been the integrative design process and shifting from a traditional, linear and compartmentalized approach to a highly collaborative one as a means of achieving more integrated building systems and a higher level of performance. For a medium sized firm (75-100 staff) in the southwest, a short term win was developing a clear checklist, or roadmap for how their design process should progress. Incorporated into the project management process, it identified who should be involved when, what they should be focusing on and what deliverables should be created.  When implemented within a year on the first pilot projects, both staff and outside consultants were excited about the qualitative improvement in interaction and were motivated to look more deeply at how they worked together in general.

A big part of the 2030 Commitment is tracking project data. This can seem overwhelming and scary at first and has kept many firms from making the commitment. For a large firm based on the west coast, the approach was to pilot different ways of gathering and inputting data, using different spreadsheets and systems to see what was most likely to be used by staff and what was easier to use for data export. In addition, the firm tested its own internal reporting to see what time intervals or reporting structures would be most useful to hold people accountable as well as to leverage the information across projects. With a 6 month deadline for testing different systems and a year of data collection to see feedback, staff were excited to have the (first ever) sense of what building performance was for certain project types and were anxious to see where improvements could be made. After a couple of years, this effort (and related innovations) also led to improved client relationships and new scope on projects.


If you plan and implement short term win strategies, the benefits will be clear:

  • The experience will help you identify some key barriers early on and adjust the long-term strategies as needed before too much investment or time passes.
  • You can track metrics, test that the data you are collecting is meaningful and valid, and get a better understanding of what your current systems and processes allow you to do, and what might need to be changed or augmented.
  • You can build credibility for the initiative as well as for the people championing the effort.
  • The short-term pressure created by these “sprints” keeps the urgency level high which is important for ongoing efforts. In order for sprints to cause excitement and not burn out, leaders need to communicate the vision and reiterate how it connects to the bigger picture.
  • Last, but not least, you will grow momentum and increase buy-in, which is absolutely critical for the next step (7 out of 8)–consolidating improvements and creating more change–which will be the subject of our next article.